Learning Organization Concepts

What is a Learning Organization?


Peter Senge defines the Learning Organization as the organization "in which you cannot not learn because learning is so insinuated into the fabric of life." Also, he defines Learning Organization as "a group of people continually enhancing their capacity to create what they want to create." Learning Organizations have a deep respect for and actively pursue anticipating, reacting and responding to change, complexity and uncertainty.  The key ingredient of the Learning Organization is in how
organizations process their managerial experiences. Learning Organizations/Managers learn from their experiences rather than being bound by their past experiences. In Generative Learning Organizations, the ability of an organization/manager is not measured by what it knows (that is the product of learning), bur rather by how it learns -- the process of learning. Management practices encourage, recognize, and reward: openness, systemic thinking, creativity, a sense of efficacy, and empathy.

Why should organizations care?

Because, the level of performance and improvement needed today requires learning, lots of learning. In most industries, in health care, and in most areas of government, there is no clear path to success, no clear path to follow.

What's the Managers' Role in the Learning Organization?

Senge (1990) argues that the leader's role in the Learning Organization is that of a designer, teacher, and steward who can build shared vision and challenge prevailing mental models. He/she is responsible for building organizations where people are continually expanding their capabilities to shape their future -- that is, leaders are responsible for learning.


What's in it for the people?

Learning to do is enormously rewarding and personally satisfying. For those of us working in the field, the possibility of a win-win is part of the attraction. That is, the possibility of achieving extraordinary performance together with satisfaction and fulfillment for the individuals involved.

More answers:

·        It’s more fun to go to work in learning organizations.

·        Learning organizations give people hope that things can be better

·        Learning orgs provide a playground for creative ideas

·        Learning orgs provide a safe place to take risks with new ideas and behaviors and the challenge needed to stretch beyond perceived limits

·        In learning organizations everyone's opinions are valued and amount that people can contribute is not determined by position in the organization

The Problem: Six Learning Disabilities

  • Though we may see and think in straight lines, reality is made up of circles.
  • Linear thinkers are always looking for a thing or person who is responsible.
  • Systems thinkers take on greater responsibility for events, because their perspective suggests that everyone shares responsibility for problems generated by a system.

The following corporate learning disabilities arise when we view the world in linear, and not systematic, ways.

I am my position. Most people confuse their jobs with their identities ("I'm an accountant"). While they understand their daily tasks, people don't understand the purpose of the enterprises they take part in. Instead, they see themselves in a system in which they have little power and no need to take responsibility for poor results.

The enemy is out there. Some organizations and people find an external agent to blame when problems arise, a result of looking at the world in non-systematic ways. Focused on our positions, we can't see how our actions have an effect beyond their boundaries. Focusing on an external enemy is almost always a mistake-usually "out there" and "in here" are part of the same system.

Illusion of taking charge. Proactive managers are encouraged and admired when they tackle problems fast. But is taking action against an enemy on the "outside" really proactive? This brand of "proactiveness" is disguised reactiveness. Being truly proactive means seeing how we contribute to our own problems and solving those first.

Fixation on events. We're dominated by events: last month's sales, the new budget cuts, who got fired, product introductions, and so on. Events distract us from seeing long-term patterns of change that lie behind them, and that, of course, inhibits us from understanding these patterns. Slow, gradual processes like environmental decay, the erosion of the education system, or a decline in product quality are more destructive than sudden events.

Delusion of learning from experience. We may learn best from experiences, but people often never experience the consequences of many of their most important decisions directly. It may take years, for instance, to see the consequences of R&D decisions.

Myth of the management team. In most organizations, a valiant, experienced, and savvy management team stands ready to battle with problems and dilemmas. Nevertheless, teams in the business world tend to fight for turf and avoid anything that will make them look bad. To keep up the appearance of a cohesive team, they hide disagreement and come up with watered-down decisions that everyone can live with.

The Solution: Five Disciplines

The antidote to these learning disabilities and to the high mortality rate among Fortune 500 companies is to practice the five disciplines of a learning organization:

  • Systems Thinking,
  • Personal Mastery,
  • Mental Models,
  • Shared Vision, and
  • Team Learning

Learning organizations learn to innovate constantly by paying attention to these five "component technologies." They are never mastered, but the best organizations practice them continuously.

Systems thinking. From an early age, we're taught to break apart problems to make complex tasks and subjects easier to deal with. But this creates a bigger problem-we lose the ability to see the consequences of our actions, and we lose a sense of connection to a larger whole. Systems thinking helps us see patterns and learn to reinforce or change them effectively to gain and sustain a competitive advantage. Systems thinking is a framework for seeing patterns and interrelationships. It's especially important to see the world as a whole as it grows more and more complex. Complexity can overwhelm and undermine: "It's the system. I have no control." Systems thinking makes these realities more manageable; it's the antidote for feelings of helplessness. By seeing the patterns that lie behind events and details, we can actually simplify life.

Personal mastery. The discipline of personal mastery includes a series of practices and principles. Three important elements are personal vision, creative tension and commitment to truth.

  • Personal vision. Most people have goals and objectives, but no sense of a real vision. Maybe you'd like a nicer house or a better job, or a larger market share for one of your products. These are examples of focusing on the means, not the result. For instance, maybe you want a bigger market share to be more profitable to keep your company independent to be true to your purpose in starting it. The last goal has the most value, while the others are means to an end-means that might change over time. The ability to focus on ultimate desires is a cornerstone of personal mastery. Vision differs from purpose. Vision is a definite picture of a desired future, while purpose is more abstract. But vision without a sense of purpose is equally futile.
  • Creative tension. There are unavoidable gaps between one's vision and current reality. You may want to start a company but lack the capital, for instance. Gaps discourage us, but the gap is itself the source of creative energy. It provides creative tension. There are only two ways to resolve the tension between reality and the vision. Either vision pulls reality toward it, or reality pulls vision downward. Individuals and companies often choose the latter, because it's easy to "declare victory" and walk away from a problem. That releases the tension. But these are the dynamics of compromise and mediocrity. Truly creative people use the gap between what they want and what is to generate energy for change. They remain true to their vision.
  • Commitment to truth. A relentless willingness to uncover the ways we limit and deceive ourselves, and a willingness to challenge the ways things are characterize those with a high degree of mastery. Their quest for truth leads to a deepening awareness of the structures that underlie and generate events, and this awareness leads to the ability to change the structure to produce the results they seek.

Mental models. We understand the world and take action in it based on notions and assumptions that may reside deeply in the psyche. We may not be aware of the effect these models have on our perception and behavior, yet they have the power to move us forward or hold us back. Why do good new ideas rarely get put into practice? Often because they conflict with deep-seated internal images of how the world or the company works. These mental models limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting, much to our detriment. That's why managing mental models-discovering them, testing their validity, and improving them-can be a breakthrough concept for learning organizations. Mental models govern how we make sense of the world and how we take action in it. An easy example is the generalization "people are untrustworthy." Such a sentiment shapes how we act and how we perceive the acts of others.

Shared vision. No organization becomes great without goals, values, and missions that become shared throughout the organization. A "vision statement" or the leader's charisma is not enough. A genuine vision breeds excellence and learning because people in the organization want to pursue these goals. “What do we want to create?" The answer to that question is the vision you and your people come together to build and share. Unlike the concept of vision that's bandied about these days-the "vision" that emanates from one person or a small group and is imposed on the corporation artificially-shared visions create a commonality that gives a sense of purpose and coherence to all the activities the organization carries out. Few forces in life and the business world are as powerful as shared vision.

Shared vision is vital for learning organizations that want to provide focus and energy for its employees. People learn best when they strive to accomplish things that matter to them. In fact, you can't have a learning organization without shared vision. The overarching goal that the vision establishes brings about not just commitment but new ways of thinking and acting. It fosters risk-taking and experimenting. It also encourages a commitment to the long-term.

Team learning. Have you ever been involved with a team of people who functioned together superbly? It may have been in business, school or sports. People trusted each other, complemented each other's strengths, compensated for each other's weaknesses, aimed for goals higher than anyone might have dared individually-and a result produced an extraordinary outcome. In such teams, each member is committed to continual improvement, each suspends judgment as to what's possible and so removes mental limitations, each shares a vision of greatness, and the team's collective competence is far greater than any individual's. Team members also recognize and understand the system in which they operate and how they can influence it.

These characteristics describe the essence of a learning organization. As with any team, the organization doesn't start off great, it learns to be great. Team learning is the process of aligning a team to avoid wasted energy and to create the results its members want. Team learning builds on the disciplines of shared vision and personal mastery, because talented teams are, necessarily, made up of talented individuals. Because the IQ of a team can be much higher than that of any of its members, teams are becoming the key learning unit in organizations.

The discipline of team learning involves mastering the practices of dialogue and discussion. In discussion (a word with the same roots as percussion and concussion) views are presented and defended and the team searches for the best view to support decisions. Participants in a discussion often want to win and see their view prevail. While dialogue and discussion can be complementary, most teams can't distinguish between them. The original meaning of the word dialogue, according to physicist David Bohm, suggests a free flow of meaning between people. Bohm contends that in dialogue a group accesses a "larger pool of common meaning" that can't be accessed by individuals alone. The purpose of dialogue, then, is to go beyond the understanding held by each team member, and to explore complex issues creatively from many points of view. After dialogue, decisions must be made and thus comes the need for discussion, where action is the focus.


For Further Reading

  • Fifth Discipline, Fifth Discipline Fieldbook, Dance of Change (Senge et al)
  • Four files in the dowload area (all start with the words "Learning Organizations"